What a charming narrative – a mountain man cons a young lady into marital servitude, at which point his six younger brothers steal six other women, holding them captive over winter. The disparity between the cold facts of the plot and the joyous Old-Timey fun of its execution is at times astounding to a modern audience. A more charitable view would be that the show’s take on gender politics is naïve – set in a land before Universal Suffrage, playing to an original audience before social emancipation. If you’re willing to leave your high-horse stabled out front (you may be able to tell that I find that difficult at times), you might just enjoy all the ass-slappin’ wife-nappin’.
Eldest brother Adam Pontipee (Sam Attwater – Hollyoaks, Dancing on Ice) goes to town to pick up a sack of potatoes and a wife to look after his six Biblically alphabetised brothers – Benjamin through to Gideon. Milly (Helena Blackman – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?) longs for more excitement than her little Oregon town can offer and agrees, only to balk at the workload. As I say, the story is nostalgically simple, with manly male stock types and silly, frilly females. Blackman tries to buck the trend with her gutsier moments, but the writing is too narrow to give her room to express something other than indignant resignation. That this production buys so fully into the narrative world comes as a surprise in contrast with the vocal performances across the board, which made no effort to capture the style of the period. Even the accents were barely generic-American, let alone specific to Oregon. This was all compounded by the single worst sound setup I’ve ever encountered in a musical – normally not something a reviewer would mention, but in this case it was truly excruciating.
That said, the choreography and set matches the show’s reputation for visual spectacle, especially impressive for a touring production. The eye-catching ‘Social Dance’, such a great moment in the film, is truly improved here by the live spectacle of daringly acrobatic routines. ‘Lonesome Polecat’ however missed the mark for me by quite some way – such an iconic number fluffed by being far too fast. Elsewhere, redwoods and log cabins fly in from all angles, and the backdrop of the Rockies does a good job of evoking the savage beauty of these then-uncharted lands.
You may think I’ve come down harsh on a show which is ultimately ‘a bit of fun’. It is that – and this production captures the energy rather well. However, no engagement has been made with the material – no attempt at period vocals, no tustling with the moral issues thrown up – so that ultimately the company and audience are just going through the motions. I’d like to think musicals, including revivals, can be so much more.